Practical Meditations for a Sabbath Day


I have no idea if you have a sabbath day or what day it might be. And no, I’ve not become a preacher, but I do hope this short article provides food for the soul!

The Meaning of Human Freedom

In the 1890’s a famous American philosopher and psychologist, William James, spoke to college students about the Will to Believe, which became one of his shorter but more famous essays. Both words in the title are important. James believed in free will, not absolute freedom, certainly not mere fancy. And he understood that beliefs are not simply given, they are formed through a free and intelligent use of mind.

It is a sign of maturity that we take responsibility for the formation of belief as well as conforming our actions to our beliefs. It is this capacity, as much as anything, that expresses our dignity as moral agents and citizens. And in that moment, when he spoke to the Brown University philosophy club, he challenged the young people of that generation to encounter and exercise intelligently their freedom.

Today, more than in his day, James might be struck by the felt lack of freedom that prevails in our society. It would become labeled as alienation in the decades that followed his meeting in Providence. But even alienation, for James, would signal the presence of faulty, self-limiting beliefs. He might even sympathize with our loss of faith and feelings of being unfree, but he would not endorse such surrender.

Moreover, I do not think he would accept the pessimism and cynicism, the mental attitude of jaded spectators of society. He would call on us to stand up and be counted as free moral agents. Even if he were to fall short of that calling as a person, he would know it was his failure of will, his lack of courage. And in doing that he would be holding himself accountable to the full meaning of human dignity.

The Temper of Our Times

An angry Millennial-generation woman sat in my office the other day and told me that it was no wonder she was ridden with anxiety and symptoms of ADHD. She said, “I don’t know anyone in my generation who is not plagued with anxiety. The crash of financial markets, the dying planet that Baby Boomers left us with, and all the crazy polarized politics…” Well, you get the message. I did, as a Boomer.

We the people have made a mess of things. Whether it all began with my generation or not may not be the ultimate issue. We’ve certainly not done much to clean up the mess. After a decade of protest for civil rights and against war, many in my generation took a seat, especially those of us who were born into a more privileged group. And the pace of destruction to our environment and republic grew.  

Self-interest, exhaustion, and cultivated skills of denial and other-worldly belief led us to assume that someone else would rescue us from our own destruction. Alas, the conflagration of fear and resentment have eaten away further at our will and our beliefs. We need both, the force of will and an enlightenment based on informed and well-considered beliefs, moral wisdom and the courage to act on it.

Come to Peace with Your Truth and Duty

I am not a churchgoer, nor am I inclined to dogma and ritual, but I do believe we are spiritual creatures and that there is a transcendent spiritual dimension of reality that should inspire awe and humility. One pearl of spiritual wisdom that I encourage all to revisit in times of crisis is the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Perhaps it’s time for us to invoke this meditation, to find our truth and the courage to act on our beliefs. If we can make a few sincere steps in this direction each day, and strengthen our will to believe, perhaps we can redeem ourselves and find a path of virtue.

Generating Positivity at Work

I recently met with a client, let’s call her Ann, who described a sense of dread she’s been experiencing immediately upon awakening in the morning. She explained that there have been some changes at work, but also unrelated issues affecting her outside of work. And as for the morning dread, it’s something she’s experienced before when going through a “rough patch.” But this time she’s having a difficult time shaking it. 

Ann felt more stuck than any one issue would seem to warrant or explain. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked. Having developed a bit of rapport and trust with her, I felt free to be a bit playful in my response: “There’s nothing wrong with you that some behavior change won’t cure!” We then explored the details of her experience.

Lifting the clouds of dread and inertia requires moving toward rather than away from our fears and insecurities.

Lifting the clouds of dread and inertia requires moving toward rather than away from our fears and insecurities.

The Problem

The dread she was feeling was like a black cloud hanging over her. Nonspecific and inert, it felt like a weighted blanket holding her down, even protecting her perhaps. But it also paralyzed her in a state of inaction. She’s only seemed able to overcome it by gritting her teeth and pressing forward. Then, later in the morning, after coffee and getting started at work, the cloud would begin lifting.

But at the end of the day, she would leave feeling exhausted and knowing that more of the same awaited her the next morning. This routine was wearing her out, and she was concerned that it was noticeably affecting her work. She lost interest and energy for doing anything after work. She had retreated from social engagement with friends and family. Signs of depression? Yes, but also chronic patterns of maladaptive coping. We would address both.

The Prescription

We discussed a way for her to take control of her day, her time, and her actions. It’s simple. 

Create a two-column action plan, with column 1 titled “Making the Rounds” (MTR) and column 2 labeled “Tackling the Challenges” (TTC). It’s a daily action plan that Ann would formulate briefly (10 minutes) at the end of the day. By doing this she would close her work day, leaving few if any loose ends to worry about. And it gave her a game plan for starting the day in the morning.

She could begin her evening and go to bed knowing that the morning would come with a doable plan, for starting the day in a manner that would affect her mood and her readiness to initiate action. Now, let’s take a closer look at how the MTR and TTC help create a more positive way of feeling, thinking, acting, and interacting.

Making the Rounds

First, she would identify two or three stakeholders with whom she would touch base first thing in the morning. These would be people with whom she has some reason to coordinate, collaborate, and align with in her role., but also people with a positive attitude. She’d would have a specific topic to address, something simple, practical, but important. But first she’d greet them, engage with them, participate in a “good morning” exchange.

When we are feeling beleaguered, it’s tempting to retreat, isolate ourselves, and go silent. This, in turn, can further depress our mood and weaken our sense of well-being and confidence. So, Ann would go the other way. Rather than avoid contact and connection, she would approach it. But she would have something specific to talk about. And she would try to choose people who give off a positive charge.

Notice it’s not 10 or 20 people, the target list is 2 or 3. It’s not totally unscripted or diffuse in purpose, it’s focused, delimited in scope. She taps into energies of initiative, agency, self-control. It’s positive, solution-focused attitude and behavior. It generates a tempo, it puts her in the driver’s seat. It does not eliminate got-to-do routines, but it prioritizes what’s most important.

Tackling the Challenges

While the MTR plan emphasizes brief, structured, interpersonal engagement to set a positive mood and energizing tempo, the TTC focuses on taking a proactive position on priorities and projects that are important and take time accomplish.

So, at the end of the day, Ann would identify the 2 or 3 challenges that she will specifically focus on tomorrow. What are they and who are the key stakeholders with whom she must collaborate to make a significant advance toward completion? What are the next-step issues, actions, or questions to be discussed? She will finish the day by formulating this TTC plan. It will be available as a guide in the morning, assuring her that she’s on top of things. 

This planning activity delimits the scope of her focus and action. Of course, there will be surprises and intervening events, but she is taking charge of key priorities, the “important stuff.” In time, she may include some of the thornier issues, including strained relationships, in her TTC plan, addressing them in a timelier manner. This helps eliminate chronic sources of stress and strain.

A Different Morning Experience

Since she briefly drafts these plans at the end of the day, she leaves work feeling more finished, freer to enjoy her evenings a bit more. And when she awakens in the morning, knowing her plans for the day are already formulated, she can arise to a moment of calm stretching, a few light exercises, and linger over a cup of coffee while briefly reviewing her plans for the day.

The amorphous dread is replaced with something more practical, productive, and doable. After trialing this approach for a week or two, she’s able to hone it as a personal practice. It’s not only a means of coping with a rough patch, it can become a regular personal discipline. It can also be an adaptive way of getting started in a new role or big project. And it can produce a contagion of positivity, helping her better cope with other issues beyond work.

It may even be something you’d like to try!

Career Coaching at Midlife

We can find ourselves facing what-next questions at midlife for a variety of reasons. A common reason is that we’ve experienced and accomplished a lot, creating a home life with significant others, establishing the basis of a career life. So, what’s next?  

Perhaps we’ve sold our share of business or we’ve just taken a new position, representing a multi-year rise within our present company. But promptings can also arise from felt “failures”, i.e., things have gotten stale, losing a job, or being passed over for a promotion. 

It’s different being out of work, especially with acute financial worries. Our self-esteem is more affected by loss and failure experiences. But in all these situations we feel needs for a revitalized sense purpose and meaning, for a grounded sense of confidence about what to do next and for taking action.    

So, as a coach, I must adapt my practices to person’s unique situation and life experience. But there are some common principles that guide our work together. I’d like to discuss them in this article, as well as how we adaptively take individual circumstances into account along the way.  

The Work We Face

Deciding what’s next for you inevitably concerns how you wish to further evolve as a person. Therefore, our coaching relationships must be person-centered. It builds upon your life experience and your values and aspirations. It should be tailored to the context of your family life. As you pursue this process, you’ll make informed choices and formulate a more practical and relevant course of action. Informed choices are based upon accurate information, sound judgement, but also deeply felt truths

Felt truths? Yes, if we thoughtfully navigate a rigorous course of reflection. You will be seeing things as they really are (accurate information) in your experience and current situation. We’ll be appraising this informed view of the situation with a mature and considered quality of judgment, arresting unconscious biases, defenses, and impulses. You’ll notice the settled feelings and intuitions form throughout this discovery process that provide the deeply felt truth referred to above. 

The Relationship

Expert skills are required to facilitate self-discovery. They consists in: 1) eliciting the "story of your life," a semi-structured interview, which reveals what has shaped you as a person and professional and what you've leveraged to thrive in life and at work; 2) jointly interpreting assessment results, which reveal your distinctive psycho-social tendencies, those that help and those that may hinder adaptive growth and development; and, 3) synthesizing these data and insights, and finding the few vital developmental themes that feel most important to be mindful of as you formulate priorities and strategies for action.  

Some may wince at the mention of “felt truths” and intuitions, but this process is not a mere flight of fancy. It’s also not reductionistic. By the time we reach midlife, we’ve experienced a great deal, and we have acquired a greater need to cope with complexity. Surfacing shaping influences, interpreting how psycho-social characteristics play a role in your life, and defining the values and themes of development at this point in your life, that cannot be reduced to a simple measurement and cannot be explained by means of “mere” discursive reason and rationality. A fuller truth is needed at midlife, one that is more nuanced. That’s why our species has developed a mind and capacity for intuitive insight.    

Qualities of Active Engagement

I’ve been a consulting psychologist and coach for a long time. My approach is informed by theory, shaped by experience, and validated by pragmatic criteria, mostly by how well it works for my clients.  

What we know from research is that the client-practitioner relationship is one of the most influential predictors of outcome. What I share below are some characteristics of the relationship that I believe matter most, especially in the practice of psychologically based coaching. 

  1. Empathic search for meaning. The coach’s empathic search for meaning in the client’s life breeds trust. It disarms unconscious defenses that block the client’s access to experience and motivations that the client has learned to hide even from themselves.

  1. Prompted reflection. Many biases affect us in everyday life. Often benign and embedded in our habitual ways of functioning (i.e., thinking, feeling, acting, and interacting), when we notice them as possibilities, it allows the client to examine them without judgment.

  2. Constructive challenge. At times and based upon a strong relationship with the client, it can be helpful for the coach to confront the client with incongruities or inconsistencies that may reveal points of confusion, mixed motivations, or internal conflicts.

  3. Deepening inquiry. Self, situational, and other awareness will deepen naturally in the process, but there may be moments when pressing with additional “whys” and “what’s that about” probes is particularly important to counter the avoidant tendencies of the client.

  4. Ideation-hypothesizing-reality testing. One of the most important discoveries for many clients is just how free they can be to question the status quo and critically examine how things work and interrelate causally. This can lead the way to practical problem solving.

  5. Homework. When clients are actively engaged, homework becomes a powerful source of learning and accountability. It may be suggested by the coach, but it increasingly becomes the product of how we jointly formulate next-steps at the end of each session.  

I hope this helps characterize the holistic growth you can expect from career coaching at midlife.

Trying Too Hard: A Control Issue

“Lean in.” “Just do it.” “Man up.” All are admonitions to impose our will upon a presenting situation. Some are more explicitly masculine in tone, but all borrow from the typically masculine side of our life as a species. Each can also be adaptive, productive, and appropriate in certain situations, at least by way of intention, even if suffering from an overly testosterone-infused edge: the fight vs flight response. 

Imposing our will might also be described as determination, an attitude and orientation that narrows our focus in the service of intensifying goal-directed action. Beyond the legitimate emergent moments when fight-flight action is warranted, a pause for dialectical consideration of our felt urgency versus the true nature of threat or risk will assure a more intelligent and reasonable course of action.

But what happens as a rapid pace of life and growing levels of stress, strain, and exhaustion exact their price? We lose our mental capacity for mindful self and situation awareness. We tend to operate on autopilot. And if we are achievement-oriented to begin with, fears of failure, an amplified sense of risk, and cognitive distortion cripple our capacities for noticing our losses in perspective and proportionality. 

That’s why self-care is so vital. Whether we invoke Stephen Covey’s notion of “sharpening the saw,” or the “renewal cycle” of Boyatzis & McKee (Resonant Leadership), the ethic of self-care that restores our capacity to be fully human is what I’m talking about here. A vigorous work ethic, so laudable and so much reinforced by management, on the other hand, can undermine self-care with trying too hard

Trying Too Hard

This is an indiscriminate mandate to always and everywhere work until exhausted, to aim just a little bit higher to ensure we don’t fall below (a standard) or behind (in comparison to others). I see the “fruits” of this behavior in my practice all too often. In its most tyrannical form, this off-the-rails norm leads people to work until it hurts, literally. Pain is the only feedback they trust to ensure they’ve done enough. 

That pain could be physical, mental, or emotional – often it’s a combination of all three. But it also becomes the pain of others, those we love, those with whom we work. “What’s wrong, you used to really like your work?” And in response, the primary victim of this syndrome (because there are usually several secondary victims) will adamantly insist that he/she has not choice, the suffering is necessary.  

Wrong, it’s not. And even the briefest moment of reflective distance from the “tyranny of the urgent” (Covey’s lovely phrase), will reveal the extreme irrationality and emotional dysregulation that has overcome us. Pedal to the floor and no brakes, that’s what this mode of “functioning” is like. And the truth is that our current systems of work are not very helpful in countering this vulnerability. 

So, it’s up to you. If you are young - for me, that’s anyone under 40 years old - you’ve got your entire future at stake. Do you really want to live of life of volleying between frantic overwork and acute self-repair? The price may be career success, but even more importantly, it may entail lost opportunities for love, happiness, friendship, and meaning. 

It’s About Control

There are things in life that we can control, and there are other forces and circumstances in life that are beyond our control. What we can control is what we care about and making choices about how we want to prioritize what we care about. We can control our level of self-care, everything from how we care for our physical self to the way we feed our soul and mind, and how we make room for love in our life. 

Rather little of how we fare with these priorities will be affected in any positive way by whether we are a CEO of a company or a billionaire. Material needs will require that we find a livelihood or career that provides an income. Being part of a community, family, and network of colleagues will require that we reciprocate acts of helping and care, even causing us to sometimes go above and beyond. 

Establishing a career, expert knowledge, and skills will require that we muster sufficient self-discipline and determination. We will need to cope with disappointment, illness, and suffering in life too. We are mortal, so these are part of what it means to be persons. But if we begin ceding ground to material trappings, compensatory needs for status, title, and power, we sacrifice our freedom for happiness. 

So, who is in charge? Is it you or your obsessions? Who is appraising your situation and your freedom to live the life you want? Is it you or is that exhausted version of our life form that has sacrificed all to seek the ephemeral affirmations that bloat our pride while leaving us empty?   

Supervision as Super∙Vision

When we problematize something, we make it a matter of thoughtful consideration. In so doing, we revitalize its meaning, significance, and practical relevance. Today, I problematize the practice of supervision, a role that we expect many to realize more frequently than they do.[1]  

A Simple Definition

Supervision is a developmental relationship characterized by an attentive attitude, an ethic of care, and active efforts to help others learn and grow personally and professionally. It may focus on practical task-oriented skills or on the so-called “softer” competencies that promote interpersonal effectiveness. And we may supervise adaptive development at the individual level or with groups and teams.   

A Clarification: Job titles ≠ roles

In any organization there is a social structure with roles of oversight. As an enterprise, it has a purpose, a mission, and stakeholders whose interests it serves, so there are expectations of fiduciary duty. To fulfill this duty and coordinate organizational performance, roles, job titles, and a governance hierarchy are created.  

Those in positions such as CEO, Vice President, Director, Manager, and Supervisor, are expected to exercise oversight, to coordinate the work of others in the service of the organization’s strategic aims and performance goals. We refer to people in these positions as leaders or members of management in the general sense of the word, i.e., they are to provide guidance to others. 

There are two specific kinds of guidance we expect of those in these positions: Management is the role of ensuring timely and efficient execution. Supervision is the role of enhancing the productive capacity of people to do their work – technical, tactical, and interpersonal.  

Managing

This role focuses primarily on the operational system of an enterprise, efficient execution of its purpose and goals. We have so-called “dashboards” that represent the status of key operating parameters. But there’s more to it than analyzing and reporting data. We also coordinate action and perform timely and adaptive problem solving to sustain performance.    

Management is aptly characterized as “keeping the trains running on time.” But the train tracks need to be maintained. And we must respond to new and different kinds and quantities of demand, and many other “backroom” functions. Having said that, if we were to characterize which gets the most attention in business today, managing would easily prevail over supervising.  

Because of this bias, I focus on the role of supervision. As we’ll see, the complexity of the supervision role is fundamentally different than the complexity of the management role. The former requires a person-orientation while the latter relies on a thing-orientation.  

Supervising

At the top of this article, I defined supervision as a relationship. And in the title, I broke the word down into two component root word. I did this because the practice of supervising others requires that see a supervisee as a person first. And we must come to know them to fully see the meaning of their actions.  

Persons are more than interchangeable functionaries. Unlike machines, they each have a subjective center the nucleus of their capacity to act as free and rational agents. And prior to the rational plan of action there are often less articulate intuitions, feelings, or concerns that shape attitude and action. 

Much of what differentiates us, indeed defines us, as persons are our value commitments, what we truly care about, what gives meaning to our lives. These and qualities of personality and interpersonal style play a role in differentiating the intuitive ore felt meaning that we discern in our field of action.  

To muddy the waters further, there are cultural and ethnic differences in how our value commitments are formed, and how they are expressed. Gender differences, too, play a role. To really see the person and appreciate his or her approach to action we must seek to understand these shaping influences. 

When we do this as supervisors, and when we reflect an appreciation who they are and how they function, they feel understood. And beyond that empathic connection, we are better positioned to help them by adapting our guidance to their individual differences while linking them to the firm’s mission. 

Super Vision

That’s what I consider the super quality of vision that enables effective supervision. And when it’s well done, it makes management of process and performance so much easier. Not only do we quicken the pace of learning, we’re able to more quickly identify and resolve issue.

Notes:

[1] For what it’s worth, the lack of adequate supervision, feedback and coaching from management has been a constant theme in McKinsey annual surveys on organizational effectiveness.